“American Ultra” was released theatrically by Lionsgate yesterday.
There’s already a movie quote floating around for “American Ultra” calling it “Pineapple Express” meets “The Bourne Identity.” The predicament that comparison introduces is that “American Ultra” is nothing but a combination of those two films and fails to thrive on its own without ever originating anything remotely fresh of its own.
In Liman, West Virginia, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner who does nothing but smoke marijuana, work at a gas station grocery store, and have panic attacks over leaving town or taking the next step with his girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart). Mike is actually a government agent who has been dormant for years, but after recently trying to leave town he is seen as an inconvenience to the government.
Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) was recently made head of the CIA over Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) and orders Mike’s eradication; even if that means annihilating all of Liman. Lasseter travels to Liman and activates Mike’s hidden abilities. Now Liman is under lock down and with the help of his conspiracy obsessed drug dealer Rose (John Leguizamo), Mike and Phoebe hope to leave town before Yates’ highly trained dogs take them out for good.
Directed by “Project X” director Nima Nourizadeh and written by Max Landis (“Chronicle”), the few times “American Ultra” gets it right it still feels overly contrived. The chemistry Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have on-screen is the foundation of the film, but Eisenberg takes the stoner demeanor to the extreme and seems to be purposely under-acting to the extent that he’s practically forgettable. Stewart has been in some great films the past year and a half and her performance here is perhaps her most emotionally animated yet.
It’s amusing to see Topher Grace as this smack talking and overbearing authority figure, especially since he’ll always be known as the goofy and soft spoken Eric Foreman from “That 70s Show.” Laugher (Walton Goggins) is perhaps the highlight. The character is seen as a villain early on as his actions are violent and that of a madman, but the way his story is tied up in the conclusion of the film is spectacular. There’s more heart and depth in those few minutes than everything else in the film. The Max Goods sequence is the main course the unfulfilling h’orderves have been teasing. Its frantic pace and murderous intent is fairly entertaining, but pales in comparison to the “Freebird” church sequence from “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”
Not many films tease all the big moments before the opening credits roll, but “American Ultra” does. It’s interesting when you first see it, but you find yourself looking for everything you saw there and expecting this or that because the film already showed it to you. The tree and car analogy is also driven into the ground on multiple occasions. After watching a car smash into a tree, Mike says that he sees himself as the stand-still and never moving tree while Phoebe is the always moving and free-roaming car. This would be fine if corny throwbacks to it didn’t occur so often. Bill Pullman has a very small role in the film, but shows up just long enough to make a threatening puppy speech that is memorable for all the wrong reasons.
There’s something very real that occurs between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in “American Ultra.” Mike is consistently feeling like he’s holding Phoebe back. Their arguments, concerns, and goals are that of genuine couples. However this action comedy feels like a lackadaisical rehash of every stoner comedy that came before it while simultaneously cramming elements from all four Bourne films into a measly hour and a half. “American Ultra” is an unsatisfying, unfunny, and underwhelming excuse of a comedy.